The Addams Family
As a Broadway musical, “The Addams Family” has had its share of tumult, upheaval and critical sneers before it ever went on the road, including the replacement of stars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in mid-run.
The road company—now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through July 29—is not quite the same show that first opened on Broadway: it’s got a fresher feel, new songs added and old ones gone. The show has already hit numerous stops before coming to Washington, but it too has suffered some critical adversity. But there’s another thing that the two productions share: a consistent audience approval in spite of the critics.
The road show also has something else that makes it rise above critical outcries and into the audience’s lap. Sure, it has instantly recognizable appeal of a branded production—in this case the Charles Addams cartoons of a dizzy, death besotten—in a good way—family, a highly successful television series, starring Carolyn Jones as the sexy-pale Morticia and her unto-death, fully in love and faintly toreador husband Gomez. This was followed by two box-office hit versions starring the wonderful Raoul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the leads presiding over the usual suspects, the plodding Lurch, Uncle Fester, offspring Wednesday, Pugsley and Grandma.
It also has—as a big plus—Douglas Sills as the undeniably gallant, springy, elegant—in a weird way—and totally still in desparate love Gomez. And Sills is the kind of guy who can make all the difference in the world. He’s the glue to this show, which can often seem unhinged, and not always in a good way.
Sills—a Broadway veteran, and old-school born-to-the-stage performer—overcomes the show’s situational schtick---daughter Wednesday is in love with a so-called normal guy and his folks are coming for dinner—and some of its lagging numbers in the second act by his sheer joyful, bust-the-seams, gleeful presence.
“Sometimes it feels as if we’ve been across the entire country,” Sills says. “It’s not an easy life—this is a relatively long run, actually, sometimes we’ve been in a city for a week and off we go.”
Sills is what I like to call a member in good standing of the Broadway baby family, actors and performers who are most at homes under the footlights, in front of live and lively audiences, who can do a show a hundred (or more times) and still find a spot of freshness in it, performers who can kill a song, do a soft shoe and make you believe that it’s the first time they’ve ever done it.
“Well, we also have (Director) Jerry Zaks restaging things” Sills said. “He’s a real pro, and I think he’s really helped make this thing go.”
Maybe so. But Sills, whose Gomez has made a promise to never keep anything from his beloved Morticia, keeps something from her to his utter shame, chagrin and pain. His mortification, seemingly endless, while singing “Trapped” twists him up into a man who sounds a little like Ricardo Montalban and feels like Stan Laurel.
Sills is a jack-of-all-trades—he’s coming off of tours of “Secret Garden” and “Into the Woods”, but made his real mark in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, where he buckled and swashed like an energized, fire-breathing hero in a musical that also had some initial critical backlash but was hugely popular with audiences.
“It got so there would be people that came back time and time again,” he said. “I think it was pretty gratifying.”
Sills was raised in Detroit, in a good Jewish family household, and was trained at famed director Bill Ball’s American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. “That was a great place to work, some wonderful actors went through there—Michael Learned, Ray Reinhardt, Peter Donat, Annette Benning, Paul Shenar. You learned to do every kind of part, which I think has served me well.”
It’s fair to guess that there are few, if any nights, when Sills doesn’t do his best, go all out. He’s earned his respect and deserves it. He has a certain authentic politeness about him especially when talking about actors of yore like Olivier, or the Shakespearean greats or a Pacino. “I think it’s our responsibility to honor the ladies and gentlemen who came come before us, and the best way to honor your heritage is to do the very best you can do.”
He acknowledged that the plot devise of the normal family meeting the not so normal family has been done before: “La Cauge Aux Follies”, “You Can’t Take it With You,” he says. “But in this way, the show becomes a story about family.”
Sills and Sara Gettelfinger make a convincing and sexy Gomez and Morticia, they always seem about to break into a tango when they come with a foot of each other. The audience members, if not always the critics, perhaps full with more Addams fire than is healthy, get it. They snap their fingers, they laugh at the jokes, get into the dark shadows spirits of the show. Sills helps make that easier by not just acting Gomez but being him.